Tuesday, May 30, 2006 | The Mount Soledad Cross is moving. With each day that passes, the often-mist-shrouded monument atop La Jolla gradually inches closer into the theological and political focus of the United States.

For 17 years, local supporters of the cross have argued that it was important to preserve the monument as a war memorial. Now, however, with national groups taking notice, the fight is gradually becoming more about the role of religion in government and religious symbols on public land.

The main catalyst for the spreading of the Soledad saga was a recent decision by U.S. District Judge Gordon Thompson, Jr. that the city of San Diego must remove the monument from city land or pay $5,000 each day the cross remains standing where it is.

That decision has galvanized politicians – from school board hopefuls to mayor Jerry Sanders – clamoring to offer solace to the 76 percent of San Diegans who voted, in last July’s special election, to keep the cross as it is, where it is. Those politicos have been joined by a diverse group, from wannabe politicians to the American Legion, all of whom have united their voices against what one American Legion attorney called the “mincing, self-righteous, soft, secular-cleansing lawyers for the (American Civil Liberties Union).”

For many San Diegans, the fight for the cross is seen as a battle to preserve part of their history – a beautiful monument that by most accounts offends few and enthralls many. But away from La Jolla and across the nation, the cross controversy is rapidly becoming the latest battlefield in a broader culture war over America’s saturation point for Christianity. As such, San Diego’s own monument is set to become the latest in a long line of high-profile cultural battles, analogous to the teaching of “intelligent design” in the classroom and an Alabama judge’s display of the Ten Commandments on courthouse property.

“The issue is really much larger than Mount Soledad,” said Joseph P. Infranco, senior vice president of the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization that has also recently supported conservative battles over abortion measures and marriage amendments. It recently announced its support for the cross.

“Our real concern is that, if there’s a precedent established in Mount Soledad, it will be the basis for going after crosses in Arlington National Cemetery and in war memorials across the nation,” Infranco said.

Max Stackhouse, professor of Christian ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary, said Mount Soledad is poised to become the latest flashpoint in a cultural debate over the separation of church and state in the modern United States. The very concept of separation of church and state has become fundamentally misunderstood, he said, which only adds to the complexity of this particular case.

“This (the cross controversy) is not separation of church and state, this is separation of historic symbols that may have at least moral and aesthetic values. If it has moral and aesthetic values, and it’s something that has a place in the common heritage, I could see not so many objections to it,” Stackhouse said.

It is this discussion over what the cross represents that could prove the most crucial part of the Soledad saga.

For many years, the local battle for the cross was fought by politicians who wished to preserve a symbol of San Diego’s history, a monument which had stood on the top of Mount Soledad for decades. They argued that the cross was not an overtly religious symbol at all, but merely a poignant part of a larger, secular war memorial. But newcomers to the debate have sought to expand the significance of the cross fight, arguing that the American people should have the right to preserve their religious heritage.

At a recent press conference, Mayor Sanders stood side-by-side with preachers and Christian activists who have been unapologetic in their support of what they see as nothing less than a symbol of God’s divine love for humankind. Charles LiMandri, the city’s pro-bono attorney for the cross took questions at the press conference on behalf of Sanders and the city.

LiMandri works for the Thomas More Law Center, which is described on its Web site as “a not-for-profit public interest law firm dedicated to the defense and promotion of the religious freedom of Christians.” As far as he’s concerned, the battle for Mount Soledad is about far more than preserving a beautiful monument.

“I think that our vision of America is better than their vision of America,” LiMandri said in a recent interview in reference to the plaintiff, an atheist, who brought the case against the cross. “I believe that President Bush by and large shares that vision and will ultimately support it.”

In the past several weeks, many national groups including the American Legion and the Alliance Defense Fund have come forward to pledge support, both spiritual and financial, to a battle that’s largely played itself out locally until now. Christian media organizations in several states have also been trumpeting the cross issue as the battle to watch. And President Bush has been pushed into the fray as well, as Sanders and U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, have petitioned for his aid in preserving the cross.

But while the Soledad Cross is seen by many San Diegans as essentially a non-religious war memorial, on a national level the cross has stirred the emotions of Christian groups who feel their entire way of life is under attack, said Nancy Duff, a professor of theological ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary.

“People on the religious right are so concerned that we’re becoming a secular society, and I understand that and I certainly don’t want to pretend that religion hasn’t been and doesn’t continue to be a significant part of our history and of our culture. But I wonder if they would be equally irate if it were a star of David or if it were a Muslim symbol or an American Indian symbol,” Duff said.

But which religion the cross advocates are defending isn’t the issue, said Phil Thalheimer, a practicing Jew and chairman of San Diegans for the Mount Soledad National War Memorial.

“This is the watershed issue for symbols of state in the entire country, and I tell people all the time that the first synagogue in this country is on national parkland, so it may not be a cross, it could be a synagogue,” Thalheimer said.

At a press conference last week organized by the American Legion it was clear that while the fight for the cross might cut across religious beliefs, it remains a fight between those who are comfortable with some cross-over between government and religion and those who believe the two should be kept as distinct as possible.

The American Legion, in announcing its support for the cross, brought in a fiery former ACLU attorney, Rees Lloyd, who proclaimed that the battle for the cross was little less than a battle for the soul of the United States.

“Today, I am literally ashamed, ashamed that it (the ACLU) has become the Taliban of American liberal secularism, wiping our history clean. I’ve got a 9-year-old and she will damn-well know our history because we won’t allow this to be torn down,” Lloyd said.

Lloyd has added his name to the list of people who have proclaimed they will chain themselves to the cross if ever the bulldozers move in. That list also includes radio personality Roger Hedgecock. Those defenders of the cross could soon be asked to make good on their promise as Aug. 1 creeps closer and the courts show no signs of relenting on their opposition to maintaining the cross on publicly owned land.

If there is no breakthrough for the cross supporters before that deadline, then the nation’s eyes will almost certainly turn to La Jolla, as the battle on Mount Soledad reaches what could be its final hour.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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